BOSCOBEL - Mark Winters grew up on a southwestern Wisconsin farm—and someday he’ll retire from one. Today, he runs a small, diversified operation outside Boscobel, not unlike the farm that he grew up on.
Like a lot of farmers, Winters has had to adapt to the changing market conditions. In his case, he’s used direct marketing to consumers to help maintain his farm—even as land and commodity pricing has driven more and more small farmers out of business.
Winters also supplies beef to the newly re-booted Udder Brothers restaurant, which opened in the old Dairy Queen building in Boscobel this spring. The restaurant features menu items made from locally sourced products.
Below is a lightly edited conversation he had with Joe Hart at the Boscobel Dial.
Dial: How did you get into farming?
Winters: Well, I grew up on a small, diversified livestock farm. We milked 25 Holstein cows, and we finished feeder pigs—usually a couple of groups of 100 pigs a year. We also had chickens. We would usually get some chicks every spring and some broilers. We butchered chickens during the summer to put in the freezer. Every winter we butchered a hog and a beef cow to put in the freezer.
We were a very typical family of 40 years ago where you lived off the land and you didn’t go to the store and buy much for groceries because you had raised it at home. That’s something that’s so different about our society today. There’s so few of us left in production agriculture that a lot of people have lost touch with their roots to the agricultural heritage.
Dial: Did you always want to farm?
Winters: Well, I went to college, and I taught ag for a couple of years here in Boscobel. That was a tough stint. I didn’t make it through the first school year. I’m a thin-skinned, big-hearted kind of a guy. And the kids were brutal. It didn’t go well. I did teach three more semesters after that.
Dial: So did you study education or farming?
Winters: People say, ‘Why would you go to college just to farm?’ Any business today requires education. You have to be worldly. We live in a global economy. Things that happen halfway around the world affect agriculture. It’s important that we learn every day and the world around us changes every day. And you just have to be open to that and adaptable.
But for me growing up on a farm, it was it was part of my heritage. It was in my blood as so many people say. That may be cliche, but the thing about it is, when you grow up living on the land, it’s inherently a part of who you are as a person.
I enjoy working in nature and with the animals so I kind of been a very diversified farmer myself while at any given point in my farming career, I’ve specialized in one thing or another. You know, we can learn a lot of things out of books, but there’s so much that you just don’t learn until you experience things in the real world.
Dial: Tell us about your operation today.
Winters: Part of my operation which is unique from many beef farmers is that I do a lot of direct marketing of beef. My brother married a Milwaukee gal, and they were out one weekend for deer hunting in the fall and we just happened to serve steak for supper one night and they were just raving about how great the beef was.
They said, “We don’t buy beef like this out of the grocery store!” And it got me thinking...
Well then in 2014, I was part of the organizational committee for the Boscobel Farmers’ Market, and that was instrumental in taking us to the next step in branching out. By going up town every Saturday morning, we were meeting different people that were outside of either our work circle work circle or church circle, and it just both exposed us to so many more people.
My wife and I also garden. She does baking under the Home Baking laws and we have quite a nice variety to offer people at farmer’s markets.
Since 2014, to the present we have I don’t believe we have ever missed a farmers’ market here in Boscobel.
Dial: I guess that takes some specialty skills?
Winters: You have to be able to converse with people. So many of us farmer types are great at production and working, but maybe not so great at interacting with people.
Many of our hours, all week long, are very solitary. We tend to work by ourselves. To go off the farm and interact with in the public to promote your product and educate people—it’s not for everybody.
Dial: What makes your meat special? What do you tell people at the market?
Winters: Not everyone realizes how unique or special it is to have farm raised beef sourced out of this part of our state. We have lush pastures. We have a lot of rain typically during the season. Our cattle eat well, their entire lifetime. It’s not like Southern California or Western range cattle where they walk miles and miles every day eating rough browsy forage, and because all that walking their meat tends to be I think a little bit stiffer. Yeah, you know, coarser.Midwest beef raised here in Wisconsin has got a tenderness about it. That is very different than a lot of meat that comes from other parts of the world.